Interview: Antibalas

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 08.28.12 in Interviews

When Antibalas performed in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Park recently, trumpeter Jordan McLean dedicated the afrobeat big band’s show to the performance-punk trio Pussy Riot (recently sentenced to prison in Russia for “hooliganism”) as well as to “another pussy” — namely Igor, a recently deceased feline friend of the band. This mixture of politics and family nicely characterizes Antibalas, by far the best non-Nigerian take to date on the sound forged by composer, singer, multiinstrumentalist, bandleader, and anti-authoritarian polygamist Fela Kuti, who died in 1997.

Over the course of their five albums since forming in Brooklyn the following year, the Antibalas collective has built on what co-founder-saxophonist Martin Perna calls the “elastic” formal perfection of afrobeat, whose almost symphonic pleasures derive from polyrhythmic relationships and dialogues among horns, drums, guitars, and keyboards, topped by rabble-rousing vocals. On Antibalas, the band’s first album in five years, the band snaps back into powerful formal concision following the experimental ruptures and raptures of 2005′s John McEntire-produced Security. A reintroduction of sorts, Antibalas returns to the group’s Daptone-label roots: Producer and label co-owner Gabriel Roth is also a former guitarist and songwriter with Antibalas.

“Once you’re in Antibalas, you’re always in Antibalas,” Perna says of Roth, whose back-to-basics recording approach was pretty much the opposite of McEntire’s. “Daptone definitely has a way of doing things,” Perna explains, “and we were down with doing them that way. Everything was mapped out before we got into the studio. We recorded onto tape, and a lot of the horn parts were played around a single mike. A lot of attention was paid to doing it right the first time. There wasn’t any ProTools cutting and pasting after we recorded a song.” Perna, who literally helped gut and rebuild Daptone’s studio more than a decade ago, sees the label as a comfortable home to classic pop forms such as soul, boogaloo, gospel, and, of course, afrobeat.

Security was a financial disappointment but an artistic success. McEntire took the afrobeat template and added metallic, electronic, and other textures to create a dynamic futurist version of ancient African rhythms. Perna was almost amused by Security reviews that commended Antibalas for its fidelity to afrobeat. “Did you listen to this record?” he wondered. And while Antibalas is much more in the classic mold of afrobeat, it sometimes seems to Perna as though Antibalas can’t win for losing. “People complained that the songs were too long on the last record,” he says with a laugh. “Now it’s like, ‘What’s with the seven-minute afrobeat songs?’”

In-between Security and Antibalas was Fela! The energetic Tony Award-winning Bill T. Jones musical’s score was arranged by Antibalas members, who also performed it on Broadway from 2009-2011. Fela Kuti’s musical biography may have introduced thousands of theatergoers to afrobeat, but Perna feels there’s still a long ways to go. “It takes a while for this music to stick,” says Perna, who was working on a graduate degree in Texas during the show’s run. “Even when people like it, it takes a while to understand everything that’s going on. We’re faced with that challenge even after fourteen years of playing and explaining it. People respond to it physically when they see us live, but it’s still quite a bit for most folk to wrap their heads around.” Afrobeat functions equally well as dance and listening music, and you can’t beat that with a stick.

But Antibalas’s big funky sound has a cost. “People in the band really make tremendous sacrifices,” Perna says. To help make ends meet, Antibalas members often end up on the road with the likes of Iron & Wine, TV on the Radio and Mark Ronson. Among the various reasons to treasure Antibalas is its commitment to spreading the afrobeat gospel despite the logistics involved in getting a dozen-member combo, with members now dispersed around the country, into the same room at the same time. During the band’s first foray to England, Fela Kuti’s close friend J. K. Braimah gave Antibalas his blessing but warned them against overtouring, which he believed contributed to Fela’s downfall. Perna says the band took his warning to heart.

In this respect, Antibalas has been reinvigorated with a relatively new rhythm section: bassist Nikhil Yerawadekar and drummer Miles Arntzen (a star student of Medeski, Martin & Wood‘s Billy Martin). “It’s nice to have folks out on the road who aren’t jaded yet,” laughs Perna.”We all love playing, but it’s hard for someone who’s leaving his kids behind and still has memories of sleeping on a thousand couches for the past 10 years.”